Jen Krueger: What Is Dead May Never Die
Spoiler warning: read no further if you haven’t caught up with the season two premiere of Orphan Black!
When it comes to character body count by the end of a first season of TV, Orphan Black is no slouch. Considering the hook of the pilot involves a woman witnessing her doppelganger jump in front of a train, maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that by the end of episode ten, the list of dead characters is of a decent length and appears to still be growing. But even though the season one finale added Helena to the show’s list of killed roles, the end of the season two premiere scratches her right back off that list seconds before cutting to the credits. Usually I don’t like seeing characters purported to be dead waltzing back into a tale, and I certainly didn’t like it in this case.
I loved it.
A big part of why I generally can’t stand watching supposedly dead characters brought back to narrative life is that faux deaths meant to fool the audience are almost always too transparent. Watching Captain America: The Winter Soldier, I was surprised the movie would bother trying to convince viewers that Nick Fury was actually dead. Even taking public real world knowledge out of the equation by ignoring the fact that this movie is only the sixth of Samuel L. Jackson’s nine-picture deal with Marvel Studios, Fury is obviously too important to the Marvel Universe to be unceremoniously killed in the middle of the Phase Two releases. Since it’s one of few things I can imagine making Captain America and Black Widow truly trust and rely on each other, I don’t quibble with the movie letting the other characters think the attempt on Fury’s life was successful. But trying to fool the audience into the same misapprehension ruined the emotional resonance this might otherwise have had for me by making the scene in which Black Widow says goodbye to what she believes to be Fury’s dead body seem like it was less about her character than it was about the movie attempting to provide enough evidence to trick the audience into believing Fury’s death. Faux character deaths are too often accompanied by this kind of overt attempt at selling them to the audience, and with a hand clearly trying to pull the wool over my eyes, I’m not likely to look at anything else.
But that isn’t to say I never care about character deaths when I can tell they’re fake. All it takes to get me to feel for characters that falsely believe somebody’s dead is for the story to simply back off the hard sell about the supposed demise. In Pacific Rim, I had no doubt Mako and Raleigh would have a happy ending, but I still got choked up watching Mako think she lost Raleigh in the last few minutes of the movie. I didn’t buy that he was dead, and I may even have thought to myself that Raleigh actually being dead would make the narrative stronger (I know, I know, I have a real dark streak), but I was able to see the ending as a trope of the genre rather than a genuine attempt at surprising me with his survival, because I didn’t feel like the movie was trying to convince me Raleigh was dead. Even when I’m moved by a fake death though, I can’t help but think how much more I’d enjoy whatever I’m watching or reading if the story managed to unfold without clear attempts at fooling me as Pacific Rim does, yet somehow actually get one over on me in the end as well.
And that’s where Orphan Black hits it out of the park. I was genuinely surprised to see Helena stumble into a hospital at the end of the season two opener after watching Sarah shoot her and presumably leave her for dead in the season one finale. The show didn’t treat Helena’s assumed death with any more or less weight than other deaths that had preceded it, and by not trying to dictate my assumptions about Helena’s fate, Orphan Black kept me from realizing there was anything to assume other than Helena’s actual demise. Of course, just successfully surprising me isn’t enough to make me feel positively about a character returning after seeming to die. In fact, there’s probably no faster way to lose my goodwill as a reader or viewer than by surprising me with the return of a character all logic dictates should be dead (*cough cough* Shameless season four).
Giving credit where credit is due, Tatiana Maslany is so phenomenal in every one of the many roles she plays on Orphan Black that I was ecstatic to realize I’d be seeing more of Helena after all. Sure, there are plenty of other clones with which to watch Maslany show off her acting chops, but she manages to portray each role so uniquely that I sometimes forget I’m watching the same actress in several parts. This made the thought of Helena dying feel like a big loss to the cast, and also makes me think I’d even be fine with the show bringing back other clones that have been offed in previous episodes. It’s a rare case in which my emotional investment overrides narrative logic, but when a show gets me this hooked on its characters, I’m more than happy for the narratively dead to rise so that I can be fooled. Heck, pop a blonde wig on Maslany to give her the part and I’d even accept Aynsley being resurrected.